Melissa Tuckey is author of Rope as Witness (Puddinghouse 2007, chapbook). She is recipient of artist fellowship awards from DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and Ohio Arts Council and a residency from Blue Mountain Center. Her poems have been published in numerous journals, including Beloit Poetry Journal, Hayden's Ferry Review, Poetry International, Poet Lore, Verse Daily and others. Melissa is co-director of Split This Rock and a host of Sunday Kind of Love. She's taught writing courses at George Mason University and Univeristy of Maryland.
You’re an activist and a poet. In the ‘60s Dylan balked at being called a “protest singer.” What would you think of the term “protest poet”?
I’m not a protest poet. I don’t write poems to protest. I write poems because I love the music of language and I enjoy the process of writing a poem. I don’t think poets or poetry can be so easily categorized.
I care passionately about social issues and have been involved in a lot of activist work, so it’s been important for me to find a voice in my poems that can encompass these experiences as well as other experiences. So I write about these things, but I wouldn’t call my poems a kind of protest.
Poetry is a kind of internal resistance. It’s the part of our minds that can’t be colonized or recruited or controlled or categorized. It’s the part of culture that can’t be destroyed. The poet Mahmoud Darwish said, “every beautiful poem is an act of resistance.” I love this idea.
When angry over current events, it’s easy for writers to let their emotions sway what they’re writing. How should poets—all writers—approach topical material so that the raw emotions don’t overwhelm the art of craft?
The answer for poetry always comes back to craft—structure, form, music, originality. Poetry is a process of discovery. So to start with an issue or something to say is very difficult.
I don’t very often start a poem knowing what I’m going to write “about”--it’s more an image, or phrase that starts the poem, and I follow it. At some point I recognize that I am responding to a current event, or that I have the opportunity to do that. It’s usually something that was deep inside – I’d slept on it, dreamt with it, walked around with it rattling in my head somewhere. Every poem is different though! I would encourage writers to read as much as possible, look at how other poets deal with these issues in their poems.
Adrienne Rich writes, “The poet today must be twice-born. She must have begun as a poet, she must have understood the suffering of the world as political, and gone through politics, and on the other side of politics she must be reborn again as a poet." I like this idea because it implies is that social consciousness is something that must be lived and breathed and understood. Poetry comes from this embodied world.
When we begin to “understand the suffering of the world as political,” this shapes the stories we tell and the way we perceive our own experiences. We cannot keep the suffering of the world out of our poems, anymore than we can pretend we are somehow immune to politics. We learn to see that all things are connected. Not only that, but there are systems of oppression and histories. None of this makes for instant poetry, but our world-view does come across in our poems.
You’re one of the founders of the Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Can you talk about what motivated you and the others to found this organization?
Split This Rock was born out of the poets against the war movement. It came about as a result of the tremendous need poets were feeling to come to Washington and speak back to the monsters in the White House. It’s challenge is to speak to social concerns within poetry. How do we begin to speak about these things with an authentic voice? We wanted to celebrate those poets who are doing so courageously and with such power. We also wanted to celebrate DC’s poetry community and literary history, and to link a national network of poets who are writing what we are calling “poetry of provocation and witness,” not just relating to the war, but relating to a wide range of topics.
Sarah Browning, founder of DC Poets Against the War, had the idea to organize a national festival, and there was huge excitement around the idea. It garnered all kinds of support and took on something of it’s own life thanks to Sarah’s tenacity and vision. The festival addressed a deep need so many of us were feeling to speak out, to be involved, to be part of a larger community, to reclaim language, to name names, to imagine change, and to do this with poetry. We also had the opportunity to connect with activists and thinkers, and to learn about and celebrate the many ways that poets are active in their communities.
So now we are establishing a non-profit organization, Split This Rock, to build upon the work of the first festival. We’re working on the line up for our next festival in March of 2010 and we’ve got a call out for panel proposals. Our website is <splitthisrock.org> .
With all your work supporting local poets and the poetry scene here, how do you manage to write your own poetry?
This is a challenge that all writers have, right? I am grateful to work with poets and poetry. Making time for my own writing, means setting everything else aside sometimes. Finding the right balance is challenging. This month, I’ve been trying to keep up with the write a poem a day challenge, and though I’m behind, it’s been instructive. So much of writing is about stealing time for it. In September, I have a one-month residency at Blue Mountain Center. I’m looking forward to that.
What are you working on now?
I’m shopping around a book manuscript, which has been a finalist in several first book contests. I’ve also been working with my friend Ye Chun to help translate a book of poems by the Chinese poet Yang Zi; and we’re working on getting that manuscript in order and into the world. Meanwhile, I’m writing new poems, revising, shuffling poems around, reading as much as I can. I’m always jealous of those who have clear “projects” they are working on. My project is usually just to write the best poems I can and to keep writing.